Naples, Italy — Start in the rabbit warren of the Spanish Quarter, with its garbage flowing from the sidewalk, laundry hanging from the windows, and honking cars fighting for space in the narrow passageways. Go half a mile up, until the crystal-blue Mediterranean begins to shine, and you come to a former Fiat showroom that opens into an airy, futuristic complex of metal and glass - filled with row upon row of IBM computers.
This is Informatica Compania, one of Italy's leading software companies, and a spearhead of new development in chronically underdeveloped southern Italy.
With chaotic city services, traffic and pollution problems, gangs and organized crime, the underdevelopment of Naples and southern Italy represent the country's most fundamental problem.
But there are tentative signs of an economic and social revival. Following a devastating earthquake in 1980, the city embarked on a huge urban-renewal plan. It has reconstructed 28,000 homes and schools and built a new 260-acre business and residential center.
Tired of waiting for better-organized city services, local residents - from aristocrats to poor mothers from the Spanish quarter - are banding together to create their own cultural and social services. And Informatica Compania shows that it is possible to bring most advanced technologies to the deprived city.
``Naples is like a cat,'' says Pietro de Meo, the silver-haired, elegantly dressed founder of the computer company. ``If you stroke it right, it purrs. If you stroke it wrong, it bites.''
The metaphor helps explain both the successes and failures of past efforts to develop Naples and close the economic gap between north and south Italy. After World War II, the Rome government poured billions of dollars into industrializing Naples. Living standards rose.
``You don't see hollowed out faces from starvation anymore,'' says Prof. Enrico Pugliere, director of the sociology department at the University of Naples.
Overall, though, the effort failed to bring jobs and prosperity. Neapolitans deride the government-built steel and chemical plants as ``cathedrals in the desert.'' Typical are the huge nationalized Italsider steel works, across the sparkling bay. In the last decade, the firm has cut 6,500 of its 8,000 jobs because of the steel market's collapse and cheap foreign competition.
``Official unemployment is 20 percent,'' Mr. Pugliere says, ``but like all statistics here, that figure's not accurate. It's much worse.''
Political turmoil aggravates the economic problems - and vice versa. At City Hall, spokesman Mimmo Annunziato throws up his arms in exasperation as he explains why Naples, for the seventh time in three years, is currently without a municipal government. Socialist Carlo D'Amato, the latest occupant of the mayor's office, resigned last fall after his coalition could not agree on a budget.
Until a new government can be formed, a bureaucrat dispatched from Rome is running the city. Perhaps more accurately, he is tending to it, since he lacks the power to tackle Naples' huge debt or get its staff of city workers to do their jobs.
Despite a hefty dustman force of 5,000, the streets remain full of rubbish.
``Let's just say it's a complicated situation,'' says Mr. Annunziato. ``Politics simply don't work here.''
Tackling organized crime
Filling much of the power vacuum is the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia. At the University of Naples, Camorra specialist Francesco Barbagallo says that Camorra families have moved from their traditional activities in gambling and prostitution into drug dealing. Though police have put some 600 Camorra members on trial since 1983, the organization's reach continues to extend, forcing shopowners to pay ``protection'' money and infiltrating the construction business.
``The Camorra has penetrated the government,'' says Professor Barbagallo, ``and threatens to corrupt our entire society.''
Against these formidable obstacles, some Neapolitans finally are fighting back - by themselves. In the Spanish quarter, the door of a small one-story, two-room house is left open for anyone looking for help. Above the front door rests a plaque, ``Mothers of Courage.''
Anna Tufano, the group's founder, says, ``Two years ago, four boys from this neighborhood - all 21 or 22 or 23 years old - died of drug overdoses on the same day. At their funerals, we decided to stand up, and say, `That's enough.'''
Mrs. Tufano and 300 supporters began lobbying city authorities for funding to get an office. Rubuffed, they armed themselves with brooms and stormed the offices of the local garbagemen, who fled in disarray.
The city government let them stay in the vacated quarters - and waived their rent. Now they hold hold drug-awareness meetings and counsel local drug addicts there, and find them places in city hospitals. Just last month, Italian president Francesco Cossiga received the mothers in his Quirinal Palace.
``Nothing will stop us, not the Camorra, not the government,'' Tufano vows, ``until something is done about drugs.''
The cultural sell
Other reform-minded Neapolitans work in more rarified air. Out of a villa along the seaside, Paolo Amalfitano directs Naples 99, a private foundation that is working to restore the city's decaying monuments. The 99 refers to 1999 and to 1799 - when Naples was the capital of the Bourbon Kingdom of Two Sicilies, one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Europe.
``...everyone forgets that the south of Italy, and Naples in particular, is home to equally incredible artistic riches'' as Florence and Venice, says Mr. Amalfitano, a professor of literature.
Since Naples 99 was begun in 1984, it has helped spur a wide range of cultural activities. In addition to raising private funds to restore 10 churches and castles, the group has been instrumental in bringing to Naples high-quality classical music and opera, and in organizing two blockbuster art exhibitions, ``Civilization of the 17th Century'' and ``Civilization of the 18th Century,'' each of which attracted an 1 million visitors.
``If this city is going to be saved,'' Amalfitano says, ``it will be done by private initiative.''
Computer entrepreneur de Meo agrees. Naples-born, he left to attend college in Rome, then completed graduate studies at Harvard Business School. Later he joined Finsiel, the computer arm of IRI, the Italian state holding company that controls hundreds of enterprises from Alitalia to Italsider steel. In 1980, Finsiel decided it had a public responsibility to expand into the south. But instead of pouring huge sums into a project, that risked being underutilized, Finsiel decided to make a limited investment and try to nurture it.
The plan worked. Local Alfa Romeo and Aeritalia plants as well as local banks needed software, and Informatica has grown quickly. Starting out with only eight employees, Informatica Compania now boasts a payroll of 280 and an annual turnover of more than 17.3 billion lire (about $13 million). Naples-born computer whizzes have begun returning from prestigious posts at IBM in Milan to work for Informatica, and the company has taken the lead in creating a software research center at the University of Naples.
But the future is far from certian. Many Neapolitans see Informatica Compania and Naples 99 as mere oases in a bleak landscape.
``I welcome these nice upper-class people, with their art promotion and computer company,'' Pugliere says, ``but unfortunately I fear that their parties and jet-set activities won't lead to the real development of Naples.''
De Meo takes these anti-elitist critics seriously, but persists. ``If you get involved in something like this, you have to be an optimist,'' he admits. ``Someone, after all, has to show what's possible in Naples.''